Intelligence in Nature – "Clever Ravens"

The intelligence required to perceive the world as if we were standing in the shoes of another is not only a indication of emotional intelligence in humans, our future may actually rest upon this capacity and skill set. That this capacity has deep ancestral roots within us is perhaps even cause for hope. Check out this article in Der Spiegel titled “Clever Ravens: Masters of Deceit.”

Ravens can toboggan, ride other animals and spy on their enemies. Their life as cadgers stealing prey from wolves, eagles and bears has made them outstandingly intelligent. But do ravens know what they’re doing and why? Austrian biologists want to find out.

Those ravens! Their newest form of entertainment is wild boar rodeo. Biologist Mareike Stöwe swears she often sees ravens trotting through the enclosure on the backs of irritated wild boars.
“Ravens like to make an impression,” Stöwe says. The birds are always out to perform unusual tricks likely to impress their kin. Dangling head-down from a branch is another popular past-time of theirs….

The article reports on research at the Austrian aviaries where ravenologists are asking the question: How intelligent are ravens?
The stories in the article are delightful and intriguing as to their intelligence, and like any one who has spent considerable time in the outdoors I have my journal of raven stories. On top of Lake Peak, at near 12,000′ and just outside of Santa Fe, here in the southern Rocky Mountains, I once was mesmerized by a single raven who soared and played in the high winds with a host of perhaps a dozen other ravens.

But this single raven had a stick in one claw that it would throw into the air andRaven then let it fall and fall and…and then it would dive and gracefully retrieve the stick with the other foot, as if performing aerial gymnastics. And then it would do it again, and again; it was still playing with the stick when I scampered down off the windy summit about an hour later.

Driving down a little dirt road in Santa Fe, once I came around a corner only to see a large raven hanging upside down on a power line. I thought the poor thing dead but as soon as it noticed my presence it gave a seemingly embarrassed flap of wings and righted itself into a posture of dignity.
And then in Big Bend years ago my partner and I were raced down a dirt road by a raven, me driving and it flying, at something above 45 miles an hour. Another raven off to the side and flying just a bit slower seemed to be squawking to its friend, “Fly Sammy Fly!”
And who has not been entertained while in the woods by their chortling and squawking and croaking…? I could not begin to count the times my own spirit has felt lifted by watching one or more soar playfully in a wind. And like many a codger I find myself exchanging greetings and questions and notations with them…just because they’ll do it with you. What that says about my intelligence is…you can decide.
But I did begin this post to write about intelligence in nature, and within us, with ravens as my entry. Jeremy Narby has a wonderful little book entitled Intelligence in Nature: An Inquiry into Knowledge; Chapter 5 is entitled Plants as Brains. Here are a few quotes, some from his conversations with a research professor of biology at the University of Edinburgh, a fellow of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific society in Great Britain, an Anthony Trewavas:

…scientists have long regarded plants as passive creatures, because they lack obvious movement. “Now to my mind, that assumption is wrong because it requires an equating of movement with intelligence. Movement is an expression of intelligence. It is not intelligence itself. Now, the definitions of intelligence are difficult…”
…found it necessary to peel away the human aspects that come with the notion of intelligence. In his view, our intelligence did not suddenly appear when we became Homo sapiens. It evolved from other organisms. Hence the importance of defining intelligence in a way that does not apply exclusively to humans… described intelligence as adaptively variable behavior within the lifetime of the individual.
…Possessing plasticity is in a sense foresight of the possible conditions in which the plant will actually find itself.
…Science now indicates that plants, like animals and humans, can learn about the world around them and use cellular mechanisms similar to those we rely on. Plants learn, remember, and decide, without brains.
I asked him about future research on plant intelligence. What remained to be done, he said, was to work out how the whole plant assesses its circumstances, makes a decision, and changes what it is doing in response to the environment it perceives. “That requires a lot of communication between the various parts of a plant. It has become an extremely complex area, remarkably complicated. And I can see that we have underestimated this in the past to an enormous extent…. what they are looking at, in fact, is an organism that does exhibit intelligent behavior, and not in the ways they normally perceive intelligence.”
Plants do not have brains, so much as act like them. (pgs. 83-94)

I picked up the link for the Der Speigel article on ravens from Art Hutchinson’s Mapping Strategy blog (thanks Art), where Art quotes:

Such intricate strategic planning requires ravens to consider things from various points of view. It’s almost a question of seeing through the eyes of others.

and then comments:

“Some human strategists don’t do as well.”

Indeed, at this critical juncture of human history, it seems to me that the first mark of strategic human intelligence will be to cease measuring the worth and value and intelligence of the other than human world from the humancentric perspective. Our thrive-ability may well depend upon our ability to remember the wildness that still lives within us, that is innately connected to all of life, to all our relations, and to see ourselves “through the eyes of others.”
If ravens and plants can…then perhaps we can remember how to as well!
The respected biologist E.O. Wilson recently advocated as much, as reported in this story from the Washington Post, titled Saving Earth from the Ground UP.

Wilson was focused on putting self-absorbed Homo sapiens in some ecological context. If humans were to disappear — he doesn’t advocate this, for the record — the effects on the insect world would be minimal. “It’s unlikely a single insect species would go extinct except three forms of body and head lice,” he said.

So let me close this longer than intended early and learning post by saying, I think it’s time we put the wild back into our resiliency too! Let’s stop bouncing back to… you pick it… and let’s transform our way into the future. Our problem solving intelligence will be of great value on this journey, but the deeper intelligence we are required to now rely upon is embedded in the ancestral and cellular memory of our bodies and spirits.
So go play with a raven and watch it soar. See if it won’t take your spirit for a flight. Talk with one and see if it won’t talk back! In fact, try talking with your plants and see but what they might not talk back too.
Warned you, I’m an old codger.
(An additional link for the inspired: Steven Harrod Buhner, The Secret Teachings of Plants; The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature. More on his work later.)


  1. Crows and Ravens, Part III « Fat Finch–Birds, Birding & Blogging

    07/20/2007 at 6:11 pm

    […] These questions are beyond the scope of this blog and, besides, they give us a headache just thinking about them.  There is a new blog we have discovered that looks as if it will delve into this broader question of the core nature of intelligence.  We’re adding it to the blogroll today.  Ruminating on three experiences watching Ravens, the author posed the broader question in the very first post of the blog which you can read here. […]

  2. Clever Ravens Followup - Intelligence in Nature « wild resiliency!

    07/21/2007 at 12:49 pm

    […] Ravens Followup – Intelligence in Nature Following up here as an earlier post on Intelligence in Nature, my friends at The Fat Finch: Bird Brain Blog are doing are series on Crows and Ravens that is […]

  3. More Raven Mysteries « wild resiliency blog!

    08/08/2008 at 5:52 am

    […] Intelligence in Nature: Clever Ravens […]

  4. Beth Surdut

    01/26/2010 at 11:07 pm

    Trickster, messenger, foolish and wise, credited with creating humans so he could have playmates, Raven is at least as smart and as dumb as we are.

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    03/20/2010 at 10:17 pm

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  6. Amber Lowenstein

    08/23/2017 at 5:52 am

    I live in rural Alaska, & there is a resident raven that hangs out on my property and watches my ducks & geese. He’s done this for years & never stolen eggs, so I greet him as if he’s a human friend. If he flies over without croaking, I call him back & tell him to say “hi.” Sometimes he listens & chortles while he flies a couple circles. Sometimes he ignores me. Today, he flew over me & said nothing, so I called him back with a pleading tone. He responded by saying my name: “Am-ber!” over & over again as he flew in circles over my yard! I was flabbergasted! He’s certainly heard my name enough to know it, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised… But I felt like people wanting to know about ravens and their behavior would want to hear about this.
    Another really interesting raven observation I’ve made here in Alaska, is that city ravens in large groups have very unusual behavior. In the winter, people in Alaska leave their cars running in parking lots a lot. I have seen a group of at least 15 ravens taking turns inhaling car exhaust. They weren’t just standing in the exhaust cloud; they were taking turns sticking their beaks in the thickest smoke, & then staggering around. I really don’t think they were doing this for warmth, because of the way they were taking turns… it was definitely a strange sight!

  7. Larry Glover

    09/02/2017 at 5:55 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to share these great stories, Amber. The standing in the ‘exhaust cloud’ is totally new behavior to me and suggests an kind of intentional ‘altering of state.’ Wow!

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